Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mr. Lucky's So-Called Charmed Life

Andrea Castillo has a thought-provoking piece available today at The Umlaut. In it, she offers an economist's take on patriarchy that includes some game theoretic critiques of a feminist account of [BATNA] disparity (she doesn't use this term specifically, but if you've got the eyes for it, it's implied). Much like Walter Williams' work on racial discrimination, she notes that folks might easily run into confusion by conflating statistical discrimination with taste-based discrimination. Men might be over-represented in positions of power, but that might be because women enjoy second-order stochastic dominance (that's just a fancy way of saying they have less variance). There's a great little nugget about halfway through the article. Reprinted here without permission:
Men want sex–and lots of it. Unfortunately for them, their demand far outstrips the supply of willing partners. Because of this, men must furiously distinguish themselves from other men to prove their worthiness to understandably choosy women. Our culture has taken advantage of men’s competitive nature and ambition to direct them towards undertaking the dangerous, but necessary, tasks that contribute to human flourishing; tasks like providing defense for vulnerable members of society, undertaking high-risk (and therefore high-reward) projects, developing large-scale social networks and culture, and sacrificing the short-term pleasures of life to achieve glory and (hopefully) the companionship of women. Culture has channeled men’s otherwise destructive sexual anxieties into a productive enterprise that results in more innovation and resources to care for women and their children.
Note the phrasing: "demand far outstrips the supply of willing partners." Do you see what's missing? Prices. But look at the unintended consequences of the stifled market in sex: "dangerous, but necessary, tasks that contribute to human flourishing." Positive externalities perhaps? Or should careful analysis parse these markets? Perhaps there's a different signaling dynamic going on in different social classes and between different types of romantic relationships.

Is it possible that we might still see the Great Works of Industry even if Cornelius Vanderbilt could visit a bordello with impunity (not that any elites have ever had any trouble obtaining paid affection). Is it possible that Castillo's arguments apply more directly to the contests waged on the left tail of the distribution? Is a market in prostitution not euvoluntary because we'd miss out on the positive externalities of men who would otherwise work extra hard for pure signaling benefits? Are these benefits even external? It's fun to posit counterfactuals, isn't it? Some are easier to answer than others. What is the general equilibrium of an open market in sex?

Don't think about it too much though. I don't want to get you in trouble.


  1. The picture of 19th century brothels is that of successful men enjoying the company of professional women. We only see prostitution robbing us of a potential social gain when it moves to the streets, no?

    1. The comparative analysis hinges heavily on context, I suspect.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?